This is an interesting question which made me think and I will answer it at least initially from the viewpoint of the female cat. I will also answer it from the viewpoint of cats who have not been spayed or neutered so they are sexually active.
While male cats want to maximise the number of kittens that they sire, female cats want to maximise the genetic quality of the kittens that she produces during her lifetime in order to aid in their survival. Females use the courtship period to select the male cats to whom she is attracted.
She assesses male cats through their scent marks which they have deposited in their territory and by observing the behaviour towards one another and towards other females. She may select more than one male for mating.
As female cats can be choosy, males have to advertise how successful they are and this is best done before they meet a female. It is believed that they do this through the pungent smell of their urine which they spray onto objects as high as it can.
A tomcat’s urine smell is stronger than that of females or neutered males. Scientists have given the name “felinine” to the amino acid which causes the smell. The amount of felinine which the male cat can produce is dependent upon the amount of high-quality protein in their diet. This in turn depends upon how successful the tomcat is as a hunter. Therefore a male cat with pungent urine must be good at obtaining food and in turn he must be worth mating because his offspring will be more successful in survival.
The smell of the tomcat’s urine is a ‘genuine badge of quality’ (Cat Sense by Dr Bradshaw). This is reference to genetic quality. The male cat can only provide this to the female because ‘paternal care is unknown in cats’. An incompetent male cat or one who is perhaps ill is unable to obtain enough food to make his urine pungent.
Therefore, to return to the question in the title to the article, the answer from the standpoint of female cats is, yes, they do understand the concept of beauty but beauty is measured in the pungency of the male cat’s urine. It is very much a feline version of the concept of beauty focusing on smell rather than physical appearance.
Turning to the African lion, I recall that females prefer male lions with dark manes as it is an indication that the cat is healthy. As you can see, the concept of attractiveness in the cat world is not one of appearance per se but concerning health. There is a connection here with human behaviour because, as I recall, female humans regard males with symmetrical faces as more attractive which arguably means that they are healthier.
As an aside, female cats avoid contact with males particularly those that they don’t know well the fear of being attacked by them. There are exceptions namely that in a small single-family colony females tend to behave affectionately towards the resident tomcat in the hope that he will defend the kittens against marauding males.
What attracts the male cat? When a female cat is in the pro-oestrus phase she becomes more attractive to males. She deposits scent against prominent objects during this phase. She may advertise her willingness to mate by changes to her scent which can be detected by males over a long distance. When oestrus approaches she rolls over on the ground purring all the time, stretches and kneads the ground with her claws and scent marks. Males are attracted and are in attendance. Males associate with females for mating.
Once again we see the importance of smell to the domestic and wild cat. As Jackson Galaxy points out in his book Total Cat Mojo scent is an identifier of the cat. If you erase their scent you erase their identity. It is also a sign of health.
I have to conclude that attractiveness to cats is about smell over physical appearance but it may be the case that large male cats are more attractive to females (I am not sure). I don’t think that females who are considered pretty in the eyes of humans are considered pretty in the eyes of a male cat.
I always appreciate the input of others.